“Butcher’s Crossing” is Louis L’Amour on literary steroids. It’s an epic, hearty, thick-skinned Western. It’s a coming-of-age character portrait. It’s an all-American novel. The challenges get rough and then they get rougher. The weather is tough and then it gets tougher. Hopes are dashed, dreams are illusory. Who should you trust? Is man in charge—or nature? I’m not giving anything away. The foreboding in “Butcher’s Crossing” is in your face. Ivy-League Easterner with a savings account meets Western outpost. The themes are telegraphed from the get-go. The bad apples are obvious. We see “danger” ahead, young Will Andrews plunges relentlessly ahead.
Would-be readers take note. This was written in 1960. The style is mid-century classic style, with full sentences and a heavy dose of adverbs. There are comparisons out there to Cormac McCarthy but it’s only for the rugged Western setting, not style of prose. Williams’ descriptions don’t resemble McCarthy’s edgy, dream-like style—at all. With Williams, every moment is clarified butter. There is no confusion about what’s happening and every scene is rich, thick and gooey. The imagery practically wafts in on the breeze and across the page.
Deep in the mountains: “Andrews’s sense of direction had become numbed by the swirling white vortex of snow. The faint gray-green of the pine trees had blanketed the opposing mountainsides, which had earlier guided them in the general direction of the valley’s mouth, had long been shrouded from the views of all of them; beyond the horses and the figures huddled upon them, Andrews could not see any mark that showed him where they went. The same whiteness met his eyes wherever he looked; he had the sensation that, dizzily, they were circling around and around in a circle that gradually decreased, until they were spinning furiously upon a single point.”
There is plenty of action, yet the pace is slow. The journey from Kansas to Colorado and then the long climb up into the mountains is grueling. The trek up the foothills is harrowing (though Coloradoans will know this part of the climb is relatively short). The buffalo slaughter is arduous. The skinning process, told in sharp detail, is laborious work. The return trip is told at almost the same pace. In this sense, “Butcher’s Crossing” probably more accurately captures the brutal challenge of pushing horses, oxen and carts across the prairie (and up the mountains) than some Western fiction.
“Butcher’s Crossing” is memorable, but it’s no page turner. This is the kind of novel where events accumulate to weigh on a main character and re-cast his soul. The characters are etched from the soil and fit many recognizable “types.” There’s the stoic and ever-optimistic Miller, who heads the buffalo hunting party. There’s the sourpuss buffalo skinner Schneider, who just can’t get along and feuds with Miller over directions, tactics and everything in the game plan. There’s God-fearing Charlie Hoge, who drives the wagon and loves a little (okay, lots of) whiskey with his coffee. And there’s heart-of-gold prostitute Francine, who takes a liking to young Will Andrews and who is there to see the new man when he returns from the grueling months away in Colorado.
It’s Miller who drives events, whose near-maniacal determination is what settled the West and drove development and he’s as riveting as Andrews. Miller’s final scene of anguish and personal turmoil is classic variation on Man Vs. Wild—what’s within “our” control and what’s not. But we see Miller through Andrews’ eyes—and Williams is as adept at character development as he is painting the scenery.
“In the evenings, hunched before the fire that reflected upon the shelter behind them and returned the warmth to their backs, Miller stared into the yellow flames whose light flickered over his dark, composed features; upon his flat lips there was habitually la smile that might have been of contentment. But the pleasure he took was not in the company, even silent, of other men; he looked at the fire and beyond it into the darkness that was here and there lightened by the pale glow of moon or stars upon the drifted snow. And in the mornings before he set out for hunting, as he fixed breakfast for the men and himself, he performed his tasks with neither pleasure nor annoyance but as if they were only a necessary prelude for his leaving.”
I read this book based on a fine profile of John Williams in the Denver weekly, Westword. The theme of the article was how the not-so-famous John Williams, 17 years after his death, is finally being recognized for “Butcher’s Crossing” and two other very different novels, “Stoner” (set in a college town) and “Augustus” (set in Imperial Rome).
The author of the article, Alan Prendergast, said it well about Will Andrews: “Every aspect of Andrews’s ordeal, from the tedium and agony of riding horseback for days across empty prairie to the mindless killing and skinning of thousands of buffalo to the struggle to survive for months in the high country, is presented in vivid, stunning detail. Yet the prose is austere and almost unbearably dispassionate, the tale told crisply and clear-eyed even as it descends into brute slaughter.”